Charlie Brooker tells Ed Power about the latest series of Black Mirror, which includes a Star Trek parody and an episode directed by Jodie Foster
IN 2013, the dystopian television series Black Mirror posited a ludicrous scenario in which a foul-mouthed, over-the-top TV celebrity becomes a credible politician. At the time, ‘The Waldo Moment’ was regarded as slightly silly satire. Watched now, in these dog days of the Trump era, it has the chilling aura of prophecy.
“We sort of seemed to cover Trump by accident,” says Charlie Brooker, co-creator and writer of Black Mirror, which returns to Netflix as a baroque post-Christmas treat tomorrow.
Black Mirror is both a phenomenon and, in this binge-watch age, an aberration. Each season consists of a number of stand-alone episodes — every one virtually a mini-movie unto itself. The name, meanwhile, came to Brooker when he found himself gazing one afternoon at his smartphone and saw his reflection staring back, as though peeping through from an alternate dimension.
The implication is that technology is indeed a sort of “black mirror” — warping our perspective, of the world and the people around us. The going can be provocative and heavy. You are not going to blaze through an entire season in a wet afternoon.
“We don’t tend to look at a newspaper and think, ‘what’s the Black Mirror take on this?’” says Brooker, speaking to the Irish Examiner in London. “But the real-world stuff seeps in.”
Did Trump or Brexit cast a shadow this year?
“It takes a long time to do a season,” he says. “The first episode in the new series was written just after the Brexit vote, to give you an idea how long ago it was. We’re not trying to predict the future — though inadvertently we often do.”
Trump gaining the Oval Office wasn’t the only nightmare Black Mirror has apparently foretold. Back when it made its debut on Channel 4 in 2011, the very first episode of the series depicted a fictional British prime minster having an intimate relationship with a barnyard animal — in order to assuage terrorists who have kidnapped a member of the royal family.
Several years later, a biography of David Cameron would claim he he transgressed in a similar manner as a jape at Oxford (an assertion instantly rubbished all round).
“Who’d have up come up with the PM and a pig?” ponders Brooker. “That would be a super lazy person. The ideas have the relevant — or at least credible.
“A lot of the concepts flow out of conversations we are having. There is never a shortage of those itty bits of ideas floating around, like bits of croutons in the psychological soup. Often we’ll look back and ask, well what haven’t we done yet.”
Brooker is the face of Black Mirror — but the show is really a partnership between the former journalist and producer Annabel Jones. They’re rather an odd couple. She is quietly spoken and laconic.
Brooker, who is married to TV presenter Konnie Huq, is larger than life and cheerfully garrulous — no secret to anyone who knows him from his previous incarnation as a writer with the Guardian newspaper in the UK, where he was a master of the scorched-earth, all-caps rant.
Moreover, Black Mirror is one of those strange success stories that, though it may now seem pre-ordained, actually flies in the face of received wisdom.
Brooker got into television through the back door, as a critic whose speciality was lamenting the poor quality, as he perceived it, of British drama. He reckoned he could do better himself — a fancy that often takes journalists. The difference is that he had the wherewithal, and the talent to do something about it. That isn’t usually how things play out.
Black Mirror became a modest hit on Channel 4. But it had the good fortune to come along as the optimism of the early internet era was giving way to a queasiness about the pervasiveness of social media and the addictive qualities of smartphones and the havoc they are wreaking upon our attention spans.
In touching this nerve, Black Mirror’s impact transcended its moderate ratings. It became internationally buzzed about — soon stars such as Mad Men’s Jon Hamm were lining up to cameo.
Hence the jump last year to Netflix — which meant bigger budgets, and a-list casts (including Jurassic World’s Bryce Dallas Howard).
What didn’t change, says Brooker, was the creative latitude given to him and Jones. That they were free to follow their muses, even indulge their whims, was clear from the most heralded instalment of that first Netflix run, ‘San Junipero’, starring Blade Runner 2049’s Mackenzie Davis.
A 61-minute meditation on death, illness, true love and the afterlife it concluded on a note of uncharacteristic optimism — a flourish that seemed to transgress the basic Black Mirror rules of engagement. The episode was acclaimed, winning Netflix an Emmy for Outstanding Television Movie.
In a year in which the ultimate Emmy prize of best drama was snatched from beneath Netflix’s nose by streaming upstart Hulu for The Handmaid’s Tale, Black Mirror’s victory was regarded as a major consolation.
‘San Junipero’ also marked Brooker and Jones’s arrival in Hollywood. In recent months, the entertainment business is convulsed by the Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey scandals. As relative industry outsiders, are Brooker and Jones surprised to see it seemingly laid bare as a predatory cesspit?
“It’s a societal thing rather than the entertainment industry,” says Brooker. “Power imbalances is what it’s about — people [not] treating each other humanely. It’s power imbalance — I don’t think that’s necessarily endemic to the entertainment industry. Certainly not if we look at the world of politics.”
“I’m sure it is happening in other industries,” adds Jones. “They’re just not as high profile.”
This year’s Black Mirror episodes run the gamut. There’s a straight up horror instalment, starring Manchester actress Maxine Peake, and a Star Trek parody with a devastating twist.
Ahead of the series, much of the attention has focused on ‘Arkangel’ — directed by Jodie Foster and about a device which allows parents control their children.
“She has a relationship with Netflix through House of Cards. She read the script and it really spoke to her. She has two young boys and felt this was something that hadn’t been dramatised before. Jodie Foster was a child actor – so who better to work with child actors? She’s very sharp and very grounded.”
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